Ex-Cyberczar Indicted, But Internet Still Has Brakes

Following a stinging rebuke from the Party’s disciplinary inspectors when he was expelled from its ranks in February, former cyberczar Lu Wei has been formally indicted for criminal prosecution. From state broadcaster CGTN:

A procuratorate in Ningbo, east China’s Zhejiang Province, has filed indictments against , former deputy head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and former head of the , for multiple offenses including taking bribes.

According to the procuratorate, the 58-year-old has abused power and public resources for personal purposes and illegally accepted large sums of money. [Source]

Lu was abruptly replaced as head of the Cyberspace Administration of China in June 2016. The announcement of his investigation for “serious disciplinary violation” last November prompted a directive, published by CDT, ordering sites and services to close comments and “find and delete negative comments attacking the system.”

The language with which state media reported his indictment this week appears markedly restrained compared with that found in the CCDI’s earlier verdict, which blasted Lu for “weak Party spirit,” personal enrichment, lewd and extravagant behavior, rampant self-promotion, selectively implementing and improperly discussing central policy, lying to higher authorities, and engaging in conspiracies. BBC Monitoring’s Kerry Allen noted the different tone:

Although many English-language papers highlight Mr Lu’s former key role, media in mainland China are playing down his prosecution.

Many official media highlight that he was “deputy minister of the publicity department”, rather than highlight his important online watchdog role.

The official broadcaster CCTV does not give prominence to Mr Lu’s prosecution, but instead mentions that the Supreme People’s Procuratorate has filed a public prosecution order against three officials, of whom Mr Lu is one.

Very few social media comments are available, and it is appears that government censors are removing posts. [Source]

Meanwhile, South China Morning Post’s Zhou Xin, Choi Chi-yuk, and Nectar Gan reported last week on the departure of Lu Wei’s successor at the CAC, former Shanghai propaganda chief Xu Lin, as part of a wider reshuffle amid concerns that the country’s propaganda has been too aggressive.

, who worked for Xi in Shanghai, is likely to take over as the party’s international chief.

Xu, 56, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) since June 2016, was expected to take charge of the State Council Information Office and the party’s external propaganda arm, the sources said, replacing Jiang Jianguo.

[… Political analyst Chen Daoyin] said Xu was a “Shanghai-style cadre” known for pragmatism, and was like to tweak China’s propaganda strategy to be less provocative and confrontational.

[…] Zhuang Rongwen, also a Xi ally, is expected to take over from Xu at the CAC, also known as the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission.

Zhuang, 57, who previously worked for Xi in Fujian, has risen quickly in the official hierarchy, gaining promotion in April to head of the State Administration of Press and Publication. Earlier this month, Zhuang assumed a new title as the director for National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal confirmed Zhuang’s appointment on Wednesday. Researchers at New America wrote in March that “the background of Xu’s successor will be a key indicator of how CAC will prioritize work going forward. If his successor comes from a more technical and security background, this will signal that the national security aspects of cybersecurity will now be prioritized” over media content control. As co-author Graham Webster noted while highlighting that analysis on Twitter, Zhuang’s appointment would appear to signal continued emphasis on the latter.

While Lu may be gone, the internet “brakes” that he declared a necessity seem only to have been upgraded and more aggressively applied. One vocal critic of , activist Zhen Jianghua, is expected to stand trial for inciting subversion soon following his detention last September. Meanwhile countless others are finding themselves “locked out of online life” for seemingly minor or unintentional transgressions, as Viola Zhou recently reported at Inkstone:

Inkstone spoke to five people whose accounts have been permanently revoked over the past two weeks. They had no warning before and no explanation after, except a vague accusation of “spreading malignant rumors.”

None of them are political activists or dissidents. Incidental mentions of political issues, which they suspect caused the problems, were tiny parts of their social media use.

[…] “The result is people don’t know where the red line is until they cross it,” says Lotus Ruan, a censorship researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “When they are not sure what constitutes ‘sensitive,’ it increases self-censorship and over-censorship.”

[…] “That kind of experience also politicizes people by letting them learn about the state,” says the University of Georgia’s Professor [Rongbin] Han. “They previously thought that only political activists were punished: now they are also punished.”

“But as individuals, they are also powerless. What they can do is very little.” [Source]

Read more via CDT on the lack of options facing Chinese users in an environment where, as The Financial Times’ Louise Lucas reported earlier this month, the few ubiquitous key players are thoroughly entangled with the authorities.

Another recent account of unexpectedly harsh WeChat control came from software engineer Jackie Luo on Twitter:

Finally: